A doctoral student at Italy’s University of Naples Federico II will travel to Orange City, Iowa, this summer to conduct research on the neurobiology of aging with Dr. Tyrone Genade, an assistant professor of biology at Northwestern College.
The two are exploring the relationship between hormones, metabolism and aging in the Nothobranchius furzeri fish. Genade has a colony descended from the original genetic line on which similar research has been performed by scientists around the world for the past 11 years.
Also known as the turquoise killifish, the Nothobranchius furzeri is a rare freshwater fish found in ponds in Zimbabwe that grows to approximately one inch long. The fish seems to age behaviorally much like human beings, appearing in experiments to lose both its short-term memory and its ability to learn as it gets older. It is ideal for longevity research because of its brief lifespan averaging just 10 weeks. And unlike rats and mice, the fish is active during the day, which makes how it regulates metabolic processes more comparable to humans.
“The human immune system does two very contradictory things as it ages,” says Genade, who has a doctorate in anatomy and cell biology from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “The immune system in the body tends to fall asleep, and the immune system in the brain tends to become overactive. What we’re looking to find is not just a mechanism to explain it, but also interventions that can stop those things from occurring. If the brain remains youthful and functioning, then the rest of the organism tends to experience a slower rate of degeneration as well.”
Genade points to research that has linked calorie restriction with longevity. By changing the diet of the fish in earlier experiments, he and colleagues were able to extend its average lifespan from nine to as much as 14 weeks. He’s now looking at three hormones associated with hunger and metabolism to see how they change with age as well as diet: leptin, ghrelin and neuropeptide Y (NPY).
“NPY is regulating our basal metabolic rate,” Genade says, “and there’s some evidence it is involved in regulating the immune system and overall brain functions as well. What we suspect is that the calorie-restricted fish become more sensitive to the actions of this peptide.”
Genade has a doctorate in anatomy and cell biology from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where he also did postdoctoral work in neurophysiology. He has co-authored an article in Experimental Gerontology and presented papers at the Society for Neuroscience.
Genade has been researching the aging of Nothobranchius fish since 2004. New to NWC’s biology department in 2013, he plans to involve Northwestern students in his research work this fall.